Alexander Russo asks: “Where are the Best Novels About Education?” and gets some pretty solid answers. I’m surprised, though, that no one mentioned youth classics like These Happy Golden Years, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of Windy Poplars, or Jo’s Boys. To be sure, these books are for teenage girls, rather than adults. And they are about education in a very different era (teacher contracts no longer include requirements to haul water or stoke the stove). But the trials, tribulations and occasional triumphs of working as a teacher are central to these books, and some of the heroines’ frustrations (fortunately not all of them!) would ring familiar to many first-year teachers today.
Young female teachers actually hold a prominent place in the canon of young adult literature. As a child, I always assumed I’d grow up to be a teacher not just because my father and grandfather were educators, but because Laura Ingalls, Anne Shirley, and Jane Eyre were teachers, too. Hardly surprising, given that the career options open to female heroines were until quite recently limited to wife, teacher, and perhaps nurse or woman of ill-repute (though the latter was hardly suitable for YA fiction until the last couple decades!)! As career options for women have expanded, it’s probably not surprising that we see fewer awesome teacher heroines. Although it’s troubling to me that teacher heroines have been displaced in YA and chick lit not so much by characters with the types of high-powered careers that we hear have drawn women away from teaching, but by heroines with vapid or simply implausible careers.
Granted: I’m hardly a connoisseur of the chick lit genre, but all the women in them seem to be celebrity/fashion/sex journalists or wanna-be journalists, publicists, or chefs. Nothing against these careers. I know really awesome, successful, lovely people in all of them. I’m just not sure why they’ve become the go-to aspirational career for contemporary YA and chick lit women. Maybe Richard Whitmire and I should team up to write a best selling chick lit novel about a sexy female engineer struggling with the “marriageable mate dilemma.”
But there are a lot more young women working as teachers than there are in these other careers, so why don’t we see more new YA and chick lit books about them? (
Or chick flicks? Not that I’m sure it would be a good thing to see Katherine Heigl playing a teacher in her next movie. Yeah, scratch that one. Or on TV? Lily on How I Met Your Mother is awesome, but should she and Glee‘s Mr. Schuster and Sue Sylvester really be carrying the banner for our nation’s largest profession?)
I’m a sucker for classic children’s and young adult fiction, so books like Anne of Avonlea remain dear to my heart. But I also think the very difference between the educational system they depict and the one we have today makes them relevant to contemporary education debates. We tend to act as if the key features of our educational system were carved in stone “just the way things are.” Books like these remind us of just how recently “things” weren’t at all like this. They also remind us of how far we’ve come in many respects (it’s a good thing that we no longer expect teachers to “board” with their students’ parents!), which should be encouraging to anyone who gets discouraged from time to time about the seemingly slow pace of educational improvement.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.